Cote Korean Steakhouse, NYC (https://www.cotenyc.com/)
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When I was in New York for the July 4th week, my friends and I stopped by Cote Korean Steakhouse. Cote Korean Steakhouse opened in 2017 and is one of the newer popular restaurants in NYC. It is touted as NYC’s first Korean steakhouse (which is pretty good marketing) and is managed by proprietor Simon Kim with chef David Shim leading the kitchen. The few things that make Cote Korean Steakhouse stand out is that it offers high-end Korean barbeque with high-quality service and even has its own dry-aging room. It is the first Korean barbeque restaurant to have its own dry-aging room. That is why it wasn’t surprising that it won its first Michelin star in 2018 despite only operating for 6 months when it received the star.
I really enjoyed the food and service at Cote – for $ 45/person, you can order “The Butcher’s Feast”. With this Butcher’s Feast, we got 4 different cuts of meat (one of which is 45 day dry-aged ribeye) that were grilled by our waiter, rice, many banchan (side dishes), plates of vegetables, two soups, and egg souffle. These are all washed down with soft-serve ice cream as dessert. The service and vibe of the restaurant were on point with a fine-dining steakhouse, which is what makes Cote stand out as a Korean barbeque “steakhouse”. The amount of food we got for the price in NYC was also surprising – we left extremely full with our wallets still somewhat intact (we ordered a bottle of wine, of course).
This meal made me think about how Korean barbeque and its banchan came to be and how dry-aging got started. Korean barbeque and banchan, with their methods of grilling and fermentation, respectively, must have evolved over the course of thousands of years, while dry-aging had to be a more recent development since meat wasn’t something that could be left unattended for months without a preservation process like salting or smoking without the technology of refrigeration back in the days.
Korean barbeque as we know it today. Photo by Chensiyuan.
In the next few paragraphs, I’ll delve into the history of how Korean barbeque evolved over thousands of years, and how religion influenced what is the essentially the essence of Korean cuisine, banchan. After our peek into the history of Korean cuisine, we will look into dry-aging and how the process was uncovered, which ended up bringing us modern day high-end restaurants that serve succulent, juicy dry-aged steaks that are packed with flavor with just a little salt and pepper. The foods we eat have a lot of history behind it and I find it fascinating to understand and learn more about the history of Korean barbeque, banchan, and dry-aging and how it has evolved to today’s foods.
History of Korean BBQ
Over the recent years, Korean barbeque and its banchan, or side dishes such as kimchi, have gotten more and more fans, especially among non-Koreans. Its increase in popularity could be compared to the equivalent of that of dim sum, which has grown to be very popular among non-Chinese as a lunch option with its family-style dishes of dumplings, buns, pastries, and many more. Korean barbeque is typically slices of meat or marinated meats (chicken, pork, beef) that are cooked on a charcoal grill and then wrapped with rice and lettuce to be eaten. Bulgogi (in Korean, this literally means fire meat, but we are familiar with it as marinated beef) is one of the most popular meats that many individuals associate with Korean barbeque.
Koreans enjoying a dinner of grilled meat and alcohol during the 18th century. Photo on Public Domain.
Bulgogi and its origins date back to the Goguryeo era (37 B.C. to 668 A.D.) and bulgogi was in the form of a skewered meat called maekjeok. Maek referred to the group that lived in the Goguryeo era, while Jeok meant skewer. Through the different eras in Korean history, it eventually became seoryamyeok, a dish of marinated beef roasted and soaked in water, which in turn evolved and became neobiani, a dish of thinly sliced marinated beef marinated and roasted before serving to Korean royalty during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).
Neobiani eventually evolved into bulgogi, which has been the signature dish that could be found at almost every Korean restaurant. How neobiani evolved over time and became bulgogi over time was due to a few factors during a very complicated time – beef becoming more commercialized, Japanese colonization, and the Korean War (1950-1953). While not as commonly known to the general population, bulgogi’s evolution included two methods of cooking – roasting and boiling – however, the population today is more familiar with the roasting method.
Korea was predominantly an agriculture-based industry – meat, especially beef, was not as common to consume on a daily basis, as slaughtering a cow for meat made no economic sense when they were essential for plowing in farms. However, in major cities, there was an increase in raising cows for the purpose of beef in the 1920s.as restaurants specializing in bulgogi appeared. Thus, beef became commercialized and widespread as demand for bulgogi increased. Many of these restaurants were very popular among its populace and bulgogi was enjoyed by many. However, Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945 led to beef shortages and the dish’s popularity waned due to high prices as a result.
In the 1950s, bulgogi became popular once again with the introduction of slicing machines that came to Korea from the U.S military during the Korean War. These slicing machines allowed meat used to prepare bulgogi to be sliced more thinly. This contributed to the rebound of bulgogi’s popularity as serving the beef in extremely thin slices meant it cooked faster for diners. Along with the building of sugar factories in the early 1950s, the marinade used for the meat became sweeter due to the accessibility and convenience of sugar as it replaced onion and pear juice as sweeteners. Thus, the bulgogi that we know of today that is so easily accessible to many has a very rich and long history. Today, bulgogi is a term synonymous with Korean culture and is a favorite of many across the world who enjoy Korean cuisine.
History of Banchan
When you enter a Korean restaurant and sit down to order a meal, whether it is a bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables topped with a soft boiled egg), or soondubu (tofu soup), the Korean waiter will promptly bring you a cup of refreshing barley tea, along with a few small dishes with what looks to be different vegetables or braised meat as snacks. Occasionally, a fried mackerel or a small pancake plate will accompany the small dishes of banchan depending on the Korean restaurant and its preference.
Today, all Korean restaurants will offer these banchan (which translates to “side dishes”) along with the meal. Banchan plays an important role in Korean cuisine and it accompanies every meal. Banchan is a general term for a set of side dishes, and there are several types of banchan, one of which most people know to be kimchi, specifically kimchi cabbage. The variety of banchan can be grouped by preparation style – fermented and pickled, lightly seasoned boiled, braised, sauteed or stir-fried, or steamed.
Banchan has a long history in Korean culture, especially since Korea was originally an agricultural-focused country and fermentation is a method of preservation that has been used for thousands of centuries by many civilizations. From the “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, a famous Chinese historical text, it noted that “The Goguryeo people (the Koreans) are skilled in making fermented foods such as wine, soybean paste, and salted and fermented fish”. Note that the “Records of the Three Kingdoms” was written in the 3rd century C.E.
It is believed that Buddhist influence played a big role in banchan becoming a core part of Korean cuisine. During the mid-three Kingdom period of Korea (57 BCE – 668 CE), Buddhism spread to Korea and one of the kingdoms that ruled Korea even adopted Buddhism as the state religion. Buddhist influence led to the ban on consumption of meat, which gave rise to vegetable-based dishes.
The end of the ban became about with the Mongol invasions of Korea (1231-1259). The Mongol empire defeated Korea in a series of campaigns and Korea became a vassal state to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Korea becoming a vassal state meant an end to the ban of meat dishes; however, six centuries of vegetarian cuisines meant banchan had already become a permanent part of Korean cuisine. Banchan had also been cemented as a core of Korea’s cuisine since Korea and its populace had a heavy focus on seafood, grains, and vegetables due to its mountainous terrains and being situated on a peninsula surrounded by three seas.
Nowadays, Korean barbeque and its banchan are favorites among many who enjoy the western “all-you-can-eat” Korean barbeque or just as a group meal where friends and family can gather to grill meats and chat alongside each other. Many enjoy korean barbeque and banchan, but few think about the culture of its complex history.
A meal of bulgogi and other meats with a large number of side dishes (banchans). Photo by Like_the_Grand_Canyon.
In the next section, I will discuss dry-aging, a process that involves placing meat in a temperature controlled room for weeks for the purpose of maturing the meat – dry-aging is a word that you may recognize that is commonly seen when you look through the menu at a high-end steakhouse.
History of Dry-Aging
The process of dry-aging involves keeping meat, typically beef, in a climate controlled refrigerated room for 15 to 28 days. During this time, the beef undergoes two changes – moisture evaporates from the meat (30% of the meat’s weight is lost as a result), and the beef enzymes break down the muscle. These changes make the beef more tender and more flavorful. The outside of the beef is covered with mold, so that is trimmed off when the beef is removed from the dry-aging room to be prepared for consumption.
Steaks being dry-aged in a dry-aging fridge. Photo by Wonderlane.
Dry-aging has been around for centuries as it was the method butchers knew to preserve and tenderize beef. Dry-aging today is more complicated with more advanced cooling systems to ensure the meat doesn’t go rancid. Dry-aging rooms are to have a maintained temperature of 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity at 85-90%. In the 1950s, dry-aging was very common as it was the only method known to butchers and meat processing plants. However, in the 1960s, the introduction of vacuum sealing technology meant a shift from dry aging, which was most costly and a longer process, to wet aging, which was aging meat in vacuum sealed packages in a refrigerator. Wet beef aging was more efficient since it led to faster meat aging and less moisture loss so the meat industry transitioned entirely to wet-aging since there were higher profit margins. Dry-aging was phased out for most and only a few companies had kept up the method of dry-aging beef for high-end restaurants. However, dry-aging has surged in popularity again as demand for dry-aged steaks due to its tenderness and enhanced flavor has increased among many countries for high-end restaurants.
The Korean barbeque, the banchan, and dry-aged steak
While being served attentively by the waiter who was grilling our meats, my friends and I chit-chatted as we grabbed banchan with our chopsticks and wrapped already cooked cuts of beef in lettuce and rice to eat. The restaurant vibe was very relaxed like any other steakhouse, with just the sound of sizzling from cuts of beef being grilled among tables, the clinking of utensils, and the small talk going on at each table.
Behind the korean barbeque, banchan, and dry-aged meats its customers are enjoying are thousand to hundreds of centuries of years of food history that many are not aware of. Bulgogi was originally grilled meat skewers that evolved into bulgogi over the course of thousands of years – the introduction of the slicing machine by US armed services in the Korean War helped accelerate the popularity of bulgogi. Meanwhile, banchan, which many see as an essential part of Korean cuisine, was influenced heavily by Buddhism as it became a state religion and Korea was dominantly a vegetarian based society for 6 centuries until the Mongol invasion. And lastly, dry-aged steak, which undoubtedly is a favorite among steak lovers as its flavor and tenderness cant be outmatched by a steak from a grocery store. The combination of high-quality Korean barbeque with dry-aging techniques has no doubt made Cote a restaurant to remember.
8) Exploring the Flow of East Asian Food Culture. Korean Cuisine and Food Culture… EDITION. Kikkoman Institute for International Food Culture. No.4. 2002.